When John Fea gets it right, he gets it (mainly). He recently reflected on life in a small town:
Messiah is located in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Mechanicsburg is not a very cosmopolitan place. Many of my neighbors have lived in the town for multiple generations. Some young people get out of town after graduation and never come back, but many never leave. We have all the usual problems associated with small towns. Race-relations could be better. Drug deals go down in the convenience store parking lots. The wealthy members of our town cloister in their gated communities. But this is where we decided to raise our family.
When we arrived in Mechanicsburg our daughters–Allyson and Caroline– were ages four and one. They attended kindergarten through high school in Mechanicsburg Area School District. We chose to live in the Mechanicsburg School District as opposed to the larger regional Cumberland Valley School District (with more opportunities) because we wanted a smaller, more intimate community for our kids. Both of them have thrived in this district and we have never regretted our choice.
Some folks in town who know me may think it is odd that I am writing about the sense of community I feel in Mechanicsburg. As an introvert, I tend to keep to myself. I would rather watch my kids play sports seated alone than join a crowd of cheering fans. I am not very good at small talk. I coached my girls in basketball when they were in elementary school, but I got disgusted with the politics, the ambitious parents, and the way many of those parents treated the selfless staff of our town’s recreation department, so I stopped. I have not participated as much in the local life of my community largely because of the time I spend investing in the life of Messiah College. But I have tried to serve when asked. I could do better.
Then he mixes in Friday Night Lights for fathers without sons (with apologies to Texans):
I thought about my relationship with this community again as I sat in the cold last night and watched the Mechanicsburg Girls Soccer team play their final home game of the season. It was the second round of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association’s District 3 playoffs. The girls won 4-0 over a team from Berks County and advanced to the District semifinals on Monday night at Hershey Park Stadium. They are now 20-0 and ranked 21st in the nation. A great story is developing here in small-town Mechanicsburg. My daughter Caroline plays a minimum number of minutes each game, but she has been an intricate part of a team that is making local history. She has been playing soccer with many of the seniors on this team since she was eight-years-old. Some of these girls are her best friends. Mechanicsburg is Caroline’s community. This place has shaped her life in so many good ways.
Caroline had mixed emotions last night. Her team will play again next week and, if things go well, will try to make a run in the state tournament. Yet the sadness of playing her last game on her home field with her friends was palpable as she walked across the field to meet us. Her tears were a mixture of joy for the blessing of an undefeated season (so far) and sadness that it was all nearing an end. I fought them back as well.
From Hillsdale, Mechanicsburg looks like it’s on the grid. It’s a suburb of Harrisburg (the state capital for the geographically challenged) and only 40 minutes from Lancaster, and 90 from Baltimore. In Hillsdale you are 90 minutes from Ann Arbor, 2 hours from Birmingham (there is one in Michigan and it is spectacular!), and 4 hours from Chicago.
The irony is that I started my college career at Messiah. The college was about half the size that it is now. And the name of our dorm floor, for inter-mural athletics, was The American House. That sounded patriotic but was actually the name of a bar in Mechanicsburg where some of the lads went to drink PBR (on tap!!). At the time, 18-year olds could drink (Kavanaugh-like), though that was not exactly how Messiah’s dean of students understood it. But apparently no one in the administration knew the reference or they simply thought our joke was silly and ignored it. Over time I found the college so far removed from urban life that I transferred to Temple in my sophomore year (after doing one semester at Messiah’s center city campus). Now I teach at a college 2/3 the size of Messiah and am even farther from the East Coast than I was in the remote setting of south central Pennsylvania.
The Lord works in mysterious ways.
I have no regrets about Hillsdale. It is the best job of my career and a wonderful school. But sometimes I wonder what it would be like to teach somewhere like Messiah, where access to the Northeast corridor is much easier.
All of which may explain why Fea and I have different reactions to Americans and evangelicals who voted for Trump. John concedes that he was somewhat sympathetic to anti-elitism in America after hearing graduate students at a recent conference:
There was a sense of confidence in their speech as they talked about their prestigious advisers and the quality of the graduate programs where they earned their Ph.Ds. They did not seem overly worried about landing a job. Rather, their complaints focused more on the fact that so many jobs were located in rural communities in so-called “Red States” where they did not want to live. Their conversation was infused with the kind of cosmopolitan snobbishness that I often hear in academic circles. As I listened to them talk, I thought that maybe all those Trump voters and Fox News watchers are correct about the “coastal elites.”
Yet, that disdain for coastal snobbishness has not stopped Fea from sounding like the Never Trumpers who live and work on the coasts (with the exception of Austin or St. Louis thrown in). If he lived in rural Michigan would he see through Michael Gerson’s coastal elitism?